Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008
During the Civil War, Colonel Sartoris comes home for a day to warn his family that Yankee soldiers are nearby and to help build a stock pen to hide his animals from the Yankees. A few days later, a Yankee soldier rides onto Sartoris land. The colonel’s twelve-year-old son Bayard and his companion Ringo, a slave on the plantation, shoot at the soldier. The boys hide under Granny’s skirts when more soldiers come to search the property for them. Granny denies that any children live on the property, and a colonel orders the rest of the men off the land while eyeing Granny’s skirts. A family man himself, he leaves after telling Granny his name—Colonel Dick—and saying he hopes she will suffer nothing worse from the Northerners.
Later, advised by Colonel Sartoris, Granny leaves for Memphis because of the dangers of the war. Joby, the Colonel’s servant, drives a wagon carrying Granny, Ringo, Bayard, and a trunk filled with silver that was buried in the yard for safekeeping. During the journey, Yankee soldiers steal their mules and Bayard and Ringo chase them unsuccessfully on a “borrowed” horse. Colonel Sartoris finds the boys and takes them home, capturing a Yankee camp on the way. Joby and Granny also make it back home with the help of “borrowed” horses, and the trunk containing the silver is again buried in the yard. Yankee soldiers come to capture Colonel Sartoris. True to a dream of Granny’s, Loosh, Ringo’s father, shows the Yankee soldiers where the trunk is buried. They take it and burn the house, but Sartoris escapes. Loosh and his wife Philadelphy leave because the Yankee soldiers tell them they are free.
Granny, Ringo, and Bayard drive six days to Hawkhurst, Alabama, to recover their trunk, their mules, and the runaway slaves. On the journey, they pass hundreds of former slaves who are following the Yankee troops to freedom. At Hawkhurst, Granny’s niece, Drusilla Hawk, joins the group, and the four of them travel to the river, where Yankee soldiers have built a bridge. After crossing, the soldiers hurry to destroy the bridge so the people who have followed them to freedom will be unable cross. The Sartoris wagon gets pushed into the river, and the four travelers make it to the other side, where the Yankee troops are now stationed.
Granny asks to speak with Colonel Dick. She asks for the return of her mules, her trunk, and Loosh and Philadelphy. Colonel Dick gives Granny a written statement from the commanding general dated August 14, 1863, that validates the return of 10 chests, 110 mules, and 110 former slaves who are following the troops. The document allows them to pass safely through any Yankee troops they might encounter and also to petition them for food during the journey home.
Once home, Granny, with the aid of Ringo and Ab Snopes, forges papers similar to the document given to her by Colonel Dick to requisition mules from various Yankee regiments in the area. She keeps the mules in the hidden pen on Sartoris property until she either sells them to other Yankee units or gives them to neighbors impoverished by the war. Near the end of the war, just before the Yankee troops leave the South, they discover Granny’s activities. The Yankees, acting on information from Ab Snopes, take back all the mules still in the Sartoris pen. Snopes then talks Granny into one last deal, getting valuable horses from Southern raiders. Although Ringo and Bayard try to stop Granny, she goes to the raiders and is killed. After Granny’s funeral, Uncle Buck...
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McCaslin rides with Ringo and Bayard to find Grumby, the man responsible for Granny’s death. For months, they track the raiders. When they are close, Uncle Buck leaves the boys because of a gunshot wound he has suffered during the chase. In a fight, the boys kill Grumby; they then nail his body to the compress where Granny was killed and bring Grumby’s right hand back to place on Granny’s grave.
Drusilla, having fought alongside Sartoris and his troops, returns from the war with the colonel and works with Ringo, Bayard, and Joby to regenerate the land while Sartoris works in Jefferson, four miles away. Drusilla’s mother and the women of Jefferson are outraged that Drusilla camped with the widower Sartoris during the war and has now returned to live on his land. They insist that Drusilla and Sartoris marry and unknowingly set election day as the day of the wedding. Drusilla sets out for Jefferson to meet Sartoris and marry him but gets involved in the politics of election day. Sartoris kills two men who are trying to get an African American elected marshall; he appoints Drusilla voting commissioner, and the white men return with Drusilla to the Sartoris land to vote against the African American candidate. In the excitement, Drusilla forgets to get married.
About eight years later, Bayard is in his third year studying law in Oxford, Mississippi. Ringo comes to him to report that John Sartoris has been killed by his rival, Ben Redmond. On the forty-mile ride home, Bayard reflects on the last few years: his father’s marriage to Drusilla and the code of violence to which they adhere, his father’s railroad venture with Redmond, their run against each other for political office, his father’s humiliating taunting of Redmond, and his father’s recent decision to turn against killing and meet Redmond unarmed. Bayard knows Drusilla and the men in Jefferson will expect him to avenge his father’s death. Bayard, who cannot forget the death of Grumby, realizes that killing is not a satisfactory solution. Determined neither to kill again nor to be a coward, he goes to Jefferson the next day to meet Redmond unarmed. Redmond shoots twice, intentionally missing Bayard, and leaves town. Bayard returns home and finds that Drusilla has gone to live with her brother but has left behind a sprig of verbena for him.